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Disappointment With God

By Philip Yancey

2015, Zondervan, 304 pages

I didn’t know half the world was disappointed with God, as I have been, until I read Philip Yancey’s book, Disappointed With God.

A distant relative recommended it to me after I learned that my cancer had spread, and was incurable. The years of personal investment into a healthy life were failing me through no fault of my own, which prompted me to ask, “Why IS life so unfair?” And yet as I explored this question I realized that I would be asking it with even more vehemence if I had been born in Mississippi with more melanin in my skin pigmentation; or if my dad had not reached out and grabbed me when I nearly slipped off a cliff at Gooseberry Falls when I was three; or if I had been born with cerebral palsy.

Yancey wrote this book partly out of a desire to answer the many letters that he had received from readers of his previous book, Where Is God When It Hurts?, who overwhelmingly expressed disappointment with God. They often asked in their letters, “Did Yancey have any advice for them?”

I was impressed with Yancey’s honesty, straightforwardness, and personal humility to take on this issue that so many people of faith are afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to discuss out-loud for fear of being found wanting in faith. Reading this book felt as if Yancey and I were just sitting across from each other over coffee, talking out loud about how to make sense of this common human experience of being let down by God--no holds barred.

In addition to sharing his own personal contentions with God, his own times of doubt and skepticism, and long periods of “silence” from God, Yancey shares the stories of many people he met as he was preparing and writing this book, like his friend Richard, who no longer believes in God and yet cannot let go of his obsession with the God who has disappointed him. And Douglas, who was badly injured after a head-on collision by a drunk driver, but left his cancer-ridden wife without a scratch.

Yet as Douglas was preparing to depart their breakfast meeting he left Yancey with these words:

But I believe God feels the same way about that accident—grieved and angry. I don’t blame him for what happened. Douglas continued, “I have learned to see beyond the physical reality in this world to the spiritual reality. We tend to think ‘Life should be fair because God is fair.’ But God is not life. And if I confuse God with the physical reality of life—by expecting constant good health, for example—then I set myself up for a crashing disappointment…. God’s existence, even his love for me, does not depend on my good health…. I challenge you to go home and read again the story of Jesus: was life ‘fair’ to him? For me, the cross demolished for all time the basic assumption that life will be fair.

Lying underneath his central theme of disappointment with God, Yancey goes on to address three questions that so many of us ask:

  1. Is God Unfair? Why doesn’t he consistently punish evil people and reward good people? Why do awful things happen to people good and bad, with no discernible pattern?

  2. Is God Silent? If God is so concerned about our doing his will, why doesn’t he reveal that will more plainly?

  3. Is God Hidden? Why doesn’t he simply show up sometime, visibly, and dumbfound the skeptics once and for all?

For those among us who may feel that the Bible no longer speaks to our modern day adversities wherein we daily seem to have to square off against the hiddenness, unfairness and silence of God, Yancey delves deeply into the stories of dozens of people in the Bible and unearths the very same gut-wrenching, painful tribulations that they faced then as we do today.

Since the development of language humans have no doubt foundered over these questions. If there was a plain, well-established answer no human being would be still asking them. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, or one that completely satisfies. For me, it was enough to take away two things. First, it was of great comfort to read so many stories of ordinary people of faith—today, as well as in the pages of the Bible—who also screamed out into the universe for answers to these vexing questions.

Second, in spite of God’s hiddenness, silence and unfairness, it seems to me there are only two choices that each of us has in the face of misfortune and devastation. We can either travel down the road of self-pity and bitterness, lashing out at the world, God, and the people we are closest to. Or, we can scream out our anger, bitterness, despair and grief to the heavens while still choosing to practice a life of love in spite of our circumstances. The first option is the easiest because it requires little from us, but leads to a long slide downhill. The second is often difficult, painful, and challenging, but may ultimately lead to a fullness of life no matter how broken, unfair or short it may be.

--Review written by Steve Gartland, December, 2023

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